American Academy of Pediatrics Immunization Resources Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents

Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Parental concerns about vaccine safety have risen, posing significant challenges for today’s pediatricians. Antivaccine Web sites, media attention to false claims about vaccine safety, and a decrease in once-common
vaccine-preventable diseases has contributed to the number of parents who question vaccines. Pediatricians
are faced with a new challenge of educating parents about the importance of vaccination, benefits and risks of
vaccination, and vaccine safety. This resource will assist pediatricians in understanding why parents are
hesitant to vaccinate, explain common concerns, and provide resources for addressing parental concerns. A
complementary piece to address common concerns is available at:
Characteristics of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Concerns about vaccine safety are more common among parents of under-immunized children, but many
parents of fully immunized children have also expressed concerns. 1 Vaccine-hesitant parents tend to believe
they can control their child’s susceptibility to disease, have doubts about the reliability of vaccine information,
prefer negative outcomes due to inaction (not vaccinating) versus negative outcomes due to action
(vaccinating), or rely on herd immunity to protect their child. 2 Studies show that some parents and physicians
follow invalid contraindications, such as not vaccinating a child with a mild illness (e.g., low grade fever),
leading to undervaccination. Other characteristics include parents with alternative medical beliefs, those with
direct experience with adverse events to vaccines, college graduates, females, and whites. 3
Why Some Parents Hesitate to Vaccinate
Vaccine hesitation is associated with perceived risk. Since vaccine-preventable diseases are rare, an adverse
event from a vaccine is perceived by the parent to be of greater risk. Risk perception is critical. To illustrate, it
is unlikely that anyone in the United States (US) will die of smallpox, but approximately 36,000 people will die
of influenza. Yet, parents who question the influenza vaccine express interest in the smallpox vaccine because
of risk perception. 4
Additional characteristics that have been associated with parental hesitance include false beliefs about
contraindications, not wanting to deliberately expose healthy children to diseases, 5 exposure to negative media
messages, beliefs that the disease is not harmful, and philosophical and religious beliefs. 6
Gust DA, Strine TW, Maurice E, et al. Underimmunization among children: effects of vaccine safety concerns on immunization status. Pediatrics. 2004;
Meszaros JR, Asch DA, Baron J, Hershey JC, Kunreuther H, Schwartz-Buzaglo J. Cognitive processes and the decisions of some parents to forego
pertussis vaccination for their children. J Clin Epidemiol. 1996; 49:697-703
Gellin BG, Maibach EW, Marcuse EK. Do parents understand immunizations? A national telephone survey. Pediatrics 2000; 106(5):1097-1102.
CDC. Key Facts About Influenza (Flu) & Flu Vaccine. Last updated 2010.
Bedford H, Elliman D. Concerns about immunization. BMJ. 2000; 320:240-243
Fredrickson DD, Davis TC, Arnold CL, Kennen EM, Humiston SG, Cross JT, Bocchini JA. Childhood immunization refusal: provider and parent
perceptions. Clinical Research and Methods. 2004; 36:431-439
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Specific Concerns of Parents and Responses
Too Many Shots Too Soon
The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend vaccination against 16 diseases
(including influenza). To be most effective some of these vaccines need to be given more than once.
As a result, children may receive up to 29 vaccinations by the time they are 2 years old. A child may
receive up to 6 shots during one visit to the doctor. Combination vaccines are a way to protect children
from disease, but require fewer needle sticks.
Studies and years of experience show that vaccines used for routine childhood immunizations can be
safely given together, at one visit. The vaccines work just as well, and this does not increase the risk of
side effects. In addition, the scientific data show that receiving multiple vaccines has no harmful effect
on a healthy child’s immune system. In a study published in the June 2010 issue of Pediatrics, M.J.
Smith, et al., conducted a retrospective cohort study of 1,047 children. The children were studied for
neurological outcomes, when they were between 7-10 years of age. Researchers found no evidence
that receipt of all vaccines on time, during infancy is associated with any undesirable
neuropsychological outcomes compared to children who received vaccines on a delayed schedule.
They recommend that communicating the information in this study may be helpful to vaccine-hesitant
Smith, MJ, Woods, CR. On-time Vaccine Receipt in the First Year Does Not Adversely
Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes. Pediatrics. 2010; 125, 4; 1134-1141-711. Available
Offitt, PA, et al. Addressing Parents’ Concerns: Do Multiple Vaccines Overwhelm or
Weaken the Infant’s Immune System? Pediatrics. 2002; 109, 1: 124-129. Available at:
AAP. The Childhood Immunization Schedule: Why Is It Like That? Available at:
Use of Thimerosal as an Additive in Vaccines
Some parents have expressed concerns about a potential link between health problems, particularly
autism, and vaccines containing thimerosal. Thimerosal is a preservative that contains a form of
mercury (organomercurial). Beginning in the 1930s, thimerosal was used in very small amounts as a
preservative in vaccines. Thimerosal is effective in preventing bacterial and fungal contamination,
particularly in opened multi-dose vaccine containers. In 1999, the Public Health Service agencies and
the AAP recommended that thimerosal be taken out of vaccines as a precautionary measure. By the
end of 2001, all routine pediatric vaccines contained no thimerosal or only trace amounts, except for
some influenza and Td vaccines. Rates of autism have not fallen since the removal of thimerosal in
vaccines. There is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the small amounts of thimerosal in
vaccines, except for minor effects like swelling and redness at the injection site due to sensitivity to
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Prior to the recent initiative to reduce or eliminate thimerosal from childhood vaccines, the maximum
cumulative exposure to mercury via routine childhood vaccinations during the first six months of life was
187.5 micrograms. With the newly formulated vaccines, the maximum cumulative exposure during the
first six months of life is less than 3 micrograms of mercury; this represents a greater than 98 percent
reduction in the amount of mercury a child would receive from vaccines in the first six months of life.
[Influenza (flu) vaccine is not given until six months or older.]
Offit PA, Jew RK. Addressing parents’ concerns: do vaccines contain harmful preservatives,
adjuvants, additives, or residuals? Pediatrics. 2003; 112: 1394 – 1397. Available at:
AAP. What Parents Should Know About Thimerosal. Available at:
CDC. Thimerosal. Available at:
CDC. Infant and Environmental Exposures to Thimerosal and Neuropsychological Outcomes at
Ages 7 to 10 years. Available at:
MMR Vaccine and Autism
Autism is a common developmental disability, affecting an estimated 1 in 150 children. Because the MMR
vaccine is first given at age 12-15 months, and the first signs of autism (eg, poor social interaction and
speech, repetitive behaviors) often appear at 15-18 months of age, concerns have been raised about a
possible link between the vaccine and the development of autism.
Studies conducted in the US and Europe have found no association between the MMR vaccine and
autism. Over the years, the Institute of Medicine and the AAP have organized several panels of
independent scientists to study MMR and autism –all concluded no association between MMR and autism.
Research on this topic continues in an effort to assure the safety of vaccines and based in part on this
research. Recently the Lancet, a prominent British medical journal, retracted a 1998 article linking the
MMR vaccines to autism.
Although the cause of autism is unknown in most instances, the theory favored by many experts is that it is
a genetically based disorder that occurs before birth. Evidence that genetics is an important, but not
exclusive, cause of autism includes a 3-8% risk of recurrence in families with one affected child. Research
on the cause of autism is ongoing.
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Halsey NA, Hyman SL, and the Conference Writing Panel. Measles-Mumps-Rubella Vaccine
and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Report from the New Challenges in Childhood Immunizations.
Pediatrics. 2001; 107:84. Available at:
Institute of Medicine. Immunization Safety Review. Available at:
AAP. MMR Vaccine and Autism: What Parents Need to Know. Available at:
Immunization Action Coalition (IAC). Does MMR Cause Autism? Examine the Evidence.
Available at:
CDC. Vaccines and Autism Theory. Available at:
Importance of Hepatitis B Vaccine in Infancy
Some parents believe that the hepatitis B vaccine should not be given to infants and children since it is
associated with high-risk behavior including intravenous drug use and sexual activity.
The hepatitis B vaccine is the best protection a child can have against a dangerous and lifelong disease.
Before the vaccine was introduced, 20,000 children under the age of 10 became infected each year in the
US. Vaccinating early against hepatitis B assures children’s immunity when they are the most vulnerable to
the worst complications of the disease and before they enter the high-risk adolescent years. Because of
common scrapes, falls, and lack of personal hygiene, children (particularly in child care settings) are more
exposed to bodily fluids than some adults. Infants who catch hepatitis B from their mothers at birth are at a
greater risk of suffering a premature death from liver cancer or liver failure later in life. Even if the mother
and the baby are both negative for hepatitis B at birth, it is important to get the vaccine. Since individuals
that are infected with hepatitis B often do not feel sick or show symptoms of the disease, they can pass the
virus on unknowingly. In two-thirds of the cases of childhood transmission of the virus, the mother was
HBsAg (hepatitis B surface antigen) negative but the unvaccinated infant was exposed from a family
member or caregiver.
AAP. Summary - AAP Preference for Birth Dose of Hepatitis B. Available at:
IAC. Give the Birth Dose: Hepatitis B Vaccine at Birth Saves Lives. Available at:
CDC. Hepatitis B. Available at:
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Relative Danger of Influenza (need for yearly vaccination)
Some parents question the need for a yearly dose of the flu vaccine. They believe that influenza is a
relatively mild disease (one that they have had and have survived) and that the risk of vaccination
outweighs the risk of the disease. Parents also may have concerns about thimerosal in the flu vaccine
(see above).
Influenza is a serious disease, and people of any age can get it. In an average year, the flu causes
36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations in the US. The “flu season” is usually from November-April
each year. An annual flu vaccine (either the flu shot or the nasal-spray flu vaccine [in recommended
age groups]) is the best way to reduce circulation of the flu. Annual shots are necessary because flu
viruses change from year to year. This means that a person can get the flu more than once during their
lifetime. The immunity that is built up from having the flu caused by one virus strain doesn’t always
provide protection when a new strain is circulating. In other words, a vaccine made against flu viruses
circulating last year may not protect against the newer viruses. Further, immunity to the disease
declines over time and may be too low to provide protection after one year.
CDC. Questions & Answers: Thimerosal-Containing Influenza Vaccine. Available at:
CDC. Influenza Web site. Available at:
AAP Childhood Immunization Support Program. Influenza Guidance Web site. Available at:
Relative Danger of Varicella Vaccine
Some parents question the need for the varicella vaccine. Like influenza, they believe that chickenpox
is a harmless illness and that the risk of vaccination outweighs the risk of the disease.
In 1999, an average of 1 child per week died in the US from complications of chickenpox. These
complications include encephalitis, a brain infection; severe staph and strep secondary infections
(flesh-eating strep and toxic shock syndrome); hepatitis; and pneumonia.
Before the vaccine, there were 4 million cases of chickenpox, 11,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths
per year in the US. The varicella vaccine prevents chickenpox in about 70-90% of people who get the
shot and prevents severe chickenpox in over 95%.
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
CDC. Varicella Vaccine Web site. Available at:
AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases. Prevention of Varicella: Recommendations for Use of
Varicella Vaccines in Children, Including a Recommendation for a Routine 2-Dose Varicella
Immunization Schedule. Pediatrics. 2007; 120: 221-231. Available at:
Strategies for Communicating with Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
As the occurrence of vaccine-preventable diseases declines, the challenge of communicating the risk of not
being immunized increases. 7 Every situation is unique; parents have diverse concerns for various reasons.
To determine parental concerns, ask the following questions: 8
o Do you have any cultural, religious, or personal belief regarding immunization?
o Has your child or any child you know has a serious adverse event after an immunization?
o Do you have any vaccine safety concerns?
o What vaccine safety information can I provide?
Be sure to listen to parents’ concerns and acknowledge them in a nonconfrontational manner. Allowing
parents to express their concerns will increase their willingness to listen to the pediatrician’s views. 9
Promote partnerships with parents in decision-making and personalize these relationships. Provide the
important information first. Make sure the parent understands the information. Clarify and reaffirm
parents’ correct beliefs about immunization and modify misconceptions.
Discuss the benefits of vaccines and the possibility of adverse events. Be open about what is known
about immunizations and what is not known. Provide parents with Vaccine Information Statements,
educational resources, and reliable Web sites. Personalize the information provided to parents based
on cultural beliefs, vaccine concerns, and literacy level.
Stress the number of lives saved by immunization, as a positive approach, rather than focusing on the
number of deaths from not immunizing.
Discuss state laws for school entry and the rationale for them. Some parents disagree with mandatory
immunization and resist immunization because they believe their rights as parents are being taken
away. Explain that vaccines benefit individual children and communities through herd immunity.
Provider attitudes and beliefs about vaccine safety have been linked to vaccination coverage in
preschool children. 10 The majority of parents believe immunization is important and trust pediatricians
as the most important source of immunization information.
If, after discussion about the benefits of vaccination and the risks of not vaccinating, the parent refuses, you
should document the discussion and have the parent sign a waiver affirming the decision not to vaccinate. If
the situation becomes such that you are no longer comfortable treating the parent/patient, the AAP manual,
“Medical Liability for Pediatricians,” offers resources for termination of the physician-patient relationship.
Bostrom A. Vaccine risk communication: lessons from risk perception, decision making and environmental risk communication research. Risk: Health
Safety Environ. 1997; spring: 173-200
Red Book 2003: Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases. American Academy of Pediatrics, 6-7
Kimmel SR, Wolfe RM. Communicating the benefits and risks of vaccines. The Journal of Family Practice. 2005; 54:S51-S57
Zhang J, Yu KF. What’s the relative risk? A method of correcting the odds ratio in cohort studies of common outcomes. JAMA. 1998; 280:1690-1691
Frequently Asked Questions
American Academy of Pediatrics
Immunization Resources
Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents
Additional Resources
AAP Refusal to Vaccinate Form. Available at:
AAP Policy Statement: Responding to Parental Refusals of Immunization of Children Available
CDC. Provider Resources for Vaccine Conversations with Parents. Available at:
Immunization Action Coalition. Responding to Concerns About Vaccines. Available at:
CDC. Six Common Misconceptions About Vaccinations and How to Respond to Them.
Available at:
IAC. Reliable Sources of Immunization Information. Available at:
National Network for Immunization Information. Evaluating Information on the Web. Available
Last updated: 7/13